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Q&A: BMW sports head says F1 work speeds technology transfer to production cars

Munich. BMW Williams stood its ground in the 2003 Formula One season against archrival Ferrari, winning four races and finishing second in the constructor's championship. A 10-cylinder engine, built and developed in Munich, is the root of the success. Automobilwoche spoke to Mario Theissen, the director of BMW's sports department, about the close links between Formula One technology and production car development.

Q: Mr. Theissen, considering the expensive materials that are used in Formula One, is it really possible to have synergies with the development production cars?

A: These synergies will not occur automatically. But if you are aiming for them, you can achieve very strong synergies. That was one of our targets, when the BMW board decided to go into Formula One in 1997. A technology transfer between Formula One and production cars had to be a central aspect of this project. Therefore, we have built our Formula One factory in Munich and linked it up with the research and innovation center, the FIZ. The same team that had developed the electronics for the M3 and M5 engines was asked to develop the electronic control of the Formula One engine.

Q: Why didn't you buy the expertise from outside?

A: We were sneered at back then because we did not rely on the experience of a specialist. But today I see it as a competitive advantage in Formula One to develop your engine electronics by yourself. Many electronic parts have been given a baptism by fire in Formula One and many are now used in the new 6 series coupe or the 7 series.

Q: Does this mean that motor sports can also profit from mass production?

A: As far as electronics are concerned, there is a flow in both directions. At first we had the expertise from our production cars, now production cars are benefiting from our Formula One knowledge.

Q: Would the development department have been able to achieve this without Formula One?

A: This is another example of the benefits of our work in Formula One. We have built a Formula One foundry, which has been integrated into the foundry for production components in Landshut. We have also based the manufacturing of Formula One parts right next to our headquarters. These plants don't belong to BMW Motor Sports, but to their respective production units. This provides these sectors with access to a high-speed development laboratory, which highly motivates our staff and speeds up development in mass production. The sand casting technology is one such example.

Q: What are the advantages of this technology for mass production?

A: Using this technology, we can achieve high flexibility and we are able to make changes quickly. We have worked this way in Formula One, but not with the same level of success. Thanks to sand casting we are able to cast with an extremely low wall thickness and achieve high-quality standards. These advancements are the result of our work in Formula One. We also are manufacturing light alloy oil pans and suction systems for high-performance production cars. Therefore, casting methods that have been developed together by our experienced founders and Formula One constructors are finding their way into mass production applications.

Q: Again, could you have done this if you weren't involved in Formula One?

A: Yes, but not as fast. The high tempo of technological development in Formula One help speed up similar developments for mass production vehicles.

Q: Tell us about the collaboration between the Formula One factory and FIZ.

A: There are very close links when it comes to material development, rapid prototyping, simulation and access to all test facilities. Some staff members at FIZ work exclusively for motor sports.

Q: So there is also close interlinking on a personal basis?

A: That's right. We have gotten the lion's share of staff members from our own company. At the moment we are increasing our staff from 220 to 250. Less than 10 percent of these people have worked at different Formula One teams before. When we started out in Formula One, Munich was seen to be a bad location because there were no Formula One specialists. Today, I see the location as an advantage because the people who work for us identify not just with Formula One but also with BMW and the BMW Williams team.

Q: How high is the transfer of staff between Formula One and mass production?

A: It exists, and that is also encouraged. We don't see Formula One as a place to burn out young engineers. I don't regard that as productive. In Formula One, success comes from knowing and understanding the whole process. Our aim is to have staff members involved in this project for at least 3-5 years. After that, when they move on to a different department, they will be very valuable.

Q: Carbon and magnesium have already made the leap from motor racing into mass production. Where can you see further potential?

A: Materials are always an issue. But the engine always stays in certain proximity to mass production. The regulations are forcing us to use a steel crankshaft, while cylinder heads and engine cases are made of aluminum. We are also working with titanium and other exotic materials. This is where we can assume a leadership role to prepare processes for possible uses in mass production.

Q: When will we see a BMW super sports car with a carbon structure on the road?

A: I am only responsible for cars that operate on non-public roads. But we do have some test vehicles around here that have such modern materials. The first results of this material development can be seen on the BMW M3 CSL and in the future, the advancements will successively infiltrate mass production from the top down.

Q: Does that include an M5 with the same number of cylinders as a Formula One engine?

A: I am only prepared to give away this much: The next M5 will again be a fascinating piece of innovative design.

Tags: Automakers BMW

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